PHILADELPHIA -- On a warm November weekend, the National Museum of American Jewish History opened on Independence Mall in Philadelphia with a star-studded gala hosted by Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld with hordes of dignitaries in attendance including Barbra Streisand.
Yet, the heart and soul of this museum are Jewish people who are not household names, the ones who came to America's shores beginning in 1654 in pursuit of religious freedom and the American Dream.
The stories, sights and sounds of their lives permeate the $150 million, five-story, 100,000-square-foot edifice on the corner of Fifth and Market streets, which sits across the street from the Liberty Bell and a block away from the National Constitution Center, two icons of American freedom. Designed by architect James Stewart Polshek (his other works include the Newseum/Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.), the National Museum of American Jewish History also includes an 85-foot-high atrium, 25,000 square feet of gallery space, a 200-seat Dell Theatre, an education center, a kosher cafe and a gift shop.
"Since many other immigrant ethnic groups that came to this country faced challenges similar to those confronted by Jews, the museum will be a place for all Americans to explore," said Michael Rosenzweig, museum president and CEO.
Originally the museum was connected to the Mikveh Israel Congregation on Fourth Street, between Market and Arch streets. The new site, a half-block away at 101 South Independence Mall East is the perfect setting for the only museum solely dedicated to the Jewish American experience, said the museum's 89-year-old president emeritus Ruth Sarner Libros, a former Philadelphian who now lives in O'Hara.
"Jews came to America because it was in the Constitution that we have religious freedom," said Mrs. Libros, part of a group of founding museum members who toured the museum prior to its public opening Nov. 26.
Enjoying the view from the museum's fifth-floor terrace were Sylvia and Sol Pomerantz, Elkins Park residents who were also part of the museum's beginnings.
"It's overwhelmingly beautiful," said Ms. Pomerantz.
"This is so much a part of Independence Mall," added her husband.
Each material used to build the terrace stands for an aspect of Jewish pride, according to Jay Nachman, the museum's PR director. The glass represents transparency -- Jews not hiding behind walls. The gold threading along the outer railings represents how Jews are woven into American society, and the terra cotta walls represent Jewish survival and strength.
"It's an American story we're telling through a Jewish lens," Mr. Nachman said.
One of the earliest records of Jews in North America is a Dutch court document dated Dec. 7, 1654, in which Jacques de la Mothes, skipper of the Sint Catrina, requested payment for freight and board from his Jewish passengers, "23 souls, big and little, who must pay equally." The court ordered their goods sold at auction and the principal debtors imprisoned until they paid any remaining debt. The passengers had fled Recife, Brazil, for America.
That document is part of the core exhibition on three floors of the museum, which features more than 1,000 artifacts, including composer Irving Berlin's piano, costumes from Ms. Streisand's 1983 film "Yentl," Steven Spielberg's first 8mm camera purchased for him in the late 1950s by his parents, a baton from conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, a vial used for polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk, an autographed baseball from Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, and a letter to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir signed by President Nixon.
The exhibition also includes multimedia presentations and state-of-the-art technology that aims to give visitors a glimpse into the history and traditions of Jewish people in America as well as their social, political, religious and economic lives. In one segment, visitors can hear the sounds of a Jewish neighborhood in New York City at the turn of the century and see copies of Jewish newspapers like The Jewish Daily News and The American Hebrew, candlesticks brought over from Russia, a circumcision gown made in 1898, family photographs, immigration documents, letters, menorahs, cookbooks and other everyday items.
Visitors should expect to spend at least an hour, but will probably need three to four hours to see everything. While the museum does not go into detail about security, suffice it to say it does exist. Those visiting the museum will go through metal detectors and have their bags searched.
The experience of Jews in America is structured in the museum this way:
• First Floor: Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, featuring 18 distinguished Jewish Americans including those mentioned earlier plus Justice Louis Brandeis; physicist Albert Einstein; cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder; Hassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; Emma Lazarus, author of the famous Statue of Liberty poem; Isaac Leeser, author, publisher, founder of Jewish American press; labor union leader Rose Schneiderman; author Isaac Bashevis Singer; Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America; and Isaac Mayer Wise, author, rabbi and leader of American Reform Judaism.
A film highlights the lives and accomplishments of each of the honorees and includes testimonials by contemporary figures. Among the tributes, filmmaker J.J. Abrams talks about Mr. Spielberg; Pittsburgh author Michael Chabon about Mr. Singer; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas about Mr. Bernstein, and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about Justice Brandeis.
• Second Floor: "Choices and Challenges of Freedom" (1945-today) looks at the period immediately following World War II, and the role of American Jews in the foundation of the state of Israel, their participation in the civil rights movement and the migration of Jews from urban centers to the suburbs.
• Third Floor: "Dreams of Freedom" (1880-1945) chronicles the height of Jewish immigration during which many Jews landed in New York City while others took up residence in Boston and Philadelphia. Also during this period, a Jewish philanthropist initiated a plan to attract Jews from the crowded Eastern cities to the South and Midwest. This segment includes a map showing Jewish immigration to America by country. Between 1899 and 1921, 1.2 million Jews came from Russia; 260,000 from Austria/Hungary; 103,000 from Romania; 73,000 from the UK; 20,000 from the Ottoman Empire; and 15,000 from Germany.
• Fourth Floor: "Foundations of Freedom" (1654-1880) examines the first wave of Jewish immigrants to America and their emerging communities.
The museum does not shy away from less savory Jewish Americans and includes organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky, who established the infamous Murder Inc.; Mickey Cohen, Dutch Schultz, Louis Lepke and Arnold Rothstein, the alleged mastermind behind the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal. They, however, are a footnote in the uplifting story of more than three centuries of Jewish immigration to and achievements in America.
"Jews have contributed to every society that they've been a part of," Mrs. Libros said.
Former Post-Gazette staff writer Monica Haynes can be reached at email@example.com .